Saving Lagos

Lagos, with 22 million people, is one of the most populous cities on Earth. It is also one of the most polluted. On top of the low life expectancy caused by extreme poverty (which afflicts well over half the city’s population), pollution results in an estimated 11,200 premature deaths each year, 60% of which are children under the age of five. The main culprit in both cases is corruption – Nigeria’s Transparency International ranking recently fell by three places to 149 out of 180. According to a 2018 World Bank report, all the main drivers of pollution in Lagos can be traced back to failures of governance: ageing vehicles spewing sub-standard fuel imported from abroad without proper checks, factories (mainly cement, chemical and steel) which are allowed to operate with minimum oversight, overdependence on generators in the absence of steady electricity from the national grid, and deeply inadequate waste infrastructure.

The Guardian recently reported that ‘international dealers export to Nigeria around 900,000 tonnes a year of low-grade, “dirty” fuel made in Dutch, Belgian and other European refineries’ that vastly exceeds EU pollution limits and sulphur standards. Nigeria ‘is having dirty fuel dumped on it that cannot be sold to other countries with higher and better implemented standards’. Yet for all that, nobody would guess that the country possesses four domestic refineries, which collectively operate at about 6% of capacity despite the almost $400 million expended on turnaround maintenance in recent years. This is because the lucky few licensed to export crude – who are among the 29,500 millionaires of a population of 211 million – not only benefit from the contracts that they don’t execute but have an interest in those low-grade refineries abroad for that reason, thereby eating from both sides, at huge cost to the country.

Meanwhile, companies in the organized private sector are forced to produce most of their own energy, with damaging environmental consequences. Despite the billions of dollars thrown at the power sector over the years – $16 billion between 1999 and 2007 alone – the national grid is still only able to cover a third of the country’s needs. As a result, Nigeria has the largest number of private generators of any country in the world (entire factories in China are dedicated solely to producing them for the Nigerian market). These machines spew out black carbon, causing fatal respiratory and cardiopulmonary diseases as well as constant low-level noise, which one only becomes aware of when the generators are occasionally switched off and one feels a sudden release of tension.  

Lagos’s environmental depredations have led to rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall, along with more frequent storms. Until five years ago, my compound was served by a ten-foot deep well, because Lagos State Water Corporation (‘Sustainably meeting potable water demand through international best practice’, as its mission statement puts it) only reaches one third of the city’s households that are registered for state tax purposes – if they are lucky. In 2015 the well ran dry for the first time a month or so ahead of the rains in April. Every subsequent year this happened again, the water drying up progressively earlier until eventually there was none left before the end of January, whereupon we were forced to dig a borehole (as have two-thirds of Lagos households, irrespective of whether they are also served by the Corporation). In theory, this meant that we now had cleaner, perhaps even drinkable water. In practice, the indiscriminate digging of boreholes without government approval – there are no clear laws on the matter – means that many of them contain unsafe levels of E Coli in a city where the use of septic tanks is widespread.

Boreholes are the source of the ubiquitous, non-biodegradable sachets of ‘pure water’ relied on by eight out of ten Lagosians – packets which, together with other non-recyclable waste products amounting to 10,000 tonnes daily, have become another major pollutant. The name ‘pure water’ is misleading. One study found that, of 50 sachets bought from hawkers in all 20 municipalities of Lagos State, 58% were unfit for human consumption, containing a mixture of parasites and impurities. (The only alternative, however, is the vastly more expensive bottled water from the likes of Nestlé, whose chairman emeritus, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, once ridiculed the ‘extreme’ NGOs ‘who bang on about declaring water a public right’.) 60 million of these 50cl sachets are disposed of daily in the country as a whole. They are tossed into the open gutters, clogging drains and causing flooding when the rains hit; into canals that sweep them into the Atlantic, contaminating the fish we feed on; and from the windows of passing vehicles onto the roadside. The majority of Lagos’s inhabitants come from rural villages to which they will one day return. Their time here is transitory: working for poverty-wages so they can eventually retire back home. Consequently, they do not have much attachment to the city. If it is unkind to them, they are likely to reciprocate.

Ironically, it is the state government – the most progressive in the country by some way (although that may not be saying much) – which has apparently shown more concern for Lagos’s environment than its citizens. It is now over a decade since the Lagos State Waste Management Authority established a series of waste banks in strategic areas as part of its zero-waste initiative. According to Titilola Adeeyo, the then recycling manager,

We buy the pure water sachets for N5 per kilogramme provided it is clean and moisture-free. We buy the plastic bottles at N20 per kilogramme. We give the recycled bags to people who need them. The idea behind putting money value to pure water sachets is to discourage people from flying them all over the place thereby degrading the environment . . . The idea behind the buyback project is to create a job market for people just as unemployed Lagos residents can tap into the recycling business.

The state government also embarked on large-scale tree-planting initiatives. Since trees trap significant amounts of water, they can be used to clear storm-water runoff, which is reduced by one million gallons for every 1,000 trees. All told, 9.6 million were planted in Lagos between 2010 and 2020. Additionally, every compound was encouraged to plant at least one tree, although judging by my own neighbourhood few seem to have heeded the call. Indeed, first-time visitors to Lagos will be struck by how generally denuded it is of vegetation, as if covering everything in concrete were necessary to hold back the ever-threatening wilderness lurking just beyond the city limits.

That said, much of this is too little and in any case subject to the same corruption as elsewhere in the system. Both these initiatives occurred during the tenure of Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola (2007-2015) but have tapered off somewhat. Some of the waste banks have fallen into disrepair, many trees are dying due to lack of attention and the canals are in the same sort of shape that originally galvanised Fashola into action. Meanwhile, there are some who dedicate their lives to combatting the city’s environmental problems. One of them, Desmond Majekodunmi, runs the Lekki Urban Forestry and Animal Shelter, founded in 2013 on 20 hectares in what was once the wilderness but is now an oasis within the expanding city. It seeks to preserve the ‘natural habitats in urban areas for use as a field laboratory to interact with and learn from nature’, to ‘address the issue of limited green spaces in urban areas like Lagos’, and to ‘enlighten the populace to clear the ambiguity of climate change through practical learning’. As with Omobola Eko’s Urban Tree Revival Initiative, which organises an annual tree-planting day, emphasis is placed on environmental education for children, who comprise not just the city’s but the country’s largest demographic, numbering around 90 million.

In this context, it should also be remembered that it was these same young people who peacefully demonstrated over two weeks last October in what became known as #EndSARS – initially a protest against police brutality but that quickly extended to bad governance generally. The old men in government initially tolerated them because we were now a democracy and peaceful protest was a constitutional right, but eventually lost patience and ordered soldiers to shoot them at two rallies in Lagos. This appeared to work. The protestors disbanded and everybody went home. But the movement is rearing its head again and is threatening to stage another peaceful rally at one of the two venues – Lekki Toll Gate – where one brave soul known as DJ Switch (now in exile) filmed the killings as she lay on the ground, expecting any minute to die. The point is that they have no choice. The entire rotten edifice must be dismantled if we are to have any chance of not merely stopping but reversing the calamity we appear intent on visiting on ourselves.

Read on: Matthew Gandy, ‘Learning from Lagos’, NLR 33.


Engaged Pessimism

Explaining her reasons for turning to the roman noir when in her fifties, after decades of teaching history at a university in Paris, Dominique Manotti points to François Mitterrand. His presidency, she has said, sounded the death knell for hopes of a radical transformation of French society. Fiction, though, offered her an alternative form of resistance – if only as a stubborn refusal to let things lie. Now aged 78, Manotti has written a dozen novels on subjects ranging from football corruption and factory protests to police violence and oil trading, mostly set in contemporary France. To better appreciate her work, it is useful to understand why it was the noir genre she chose rather than the policier, or detective novel. In a talk she gave at the University of Bari in 2009, she explained this well:

In ‘traditional’ detective fiction, a crime (or more than one crime) takes place and creates a rupture in the order of things. An unacceptable disorder – an unacceptable transgression – takes place at the start of the novel. An investigator (or more than one) carries out an investigation, which results in the discovery of the culprit(s) and the restoration of order. The detective story is by definition an ordered novel. Evil exists, but in the end, order is restored. You have scared yourself, but you can sleep soundly. The crime is an individual act, which is explained through personal motives and relationships.

The detective novel is steeped in psychology, and even psychiatry when you have the character of the serial killer, which is the new archetype of this kind of fiction. The noir novel, however, roots its crimes in the particular social circumstances in which they are committed. It is no longer the individual alone who is the criminal but the world of suffering, misery, violence and corruption in which we live which produces criminal individuals, this world that law and justice cover up without ever addressing. The reestablishment of order, if it takes place at all, is never more than a fragile reestablishment of an appearance of order and peace. Disorder is the true state of this tragic world. We are poles apart from any kind of edifying literature. The noir novel seems to use the same codes as detective fiction, and reuses the same characters such as the detective, but it does so with a very different scope: crime and disorder are not accidents that can be remedied. Disorder is at the very heart of social organization; it is its irreparable truth.

And it is this way of seeing things that strikes me as better adapted to the understanding of my time. It seems to me that we are living in a world that has a heightened awareness of the crisis it faces, a world that sees the imbalance and loss of control, and therefore the danger.

This goes some way to accounting for the general darkness and despair that hangs over Manotti’s novels. One could call it an engaged pessimism. She writes novels to call out what she considers unacceptable in society, but she has few expectations that what she details in her books will go away. Much of the time she is also drawing from fact, and these true stories have all ended badly, as is the case for Marseille 73, her thirteenth and latest novel which was published last year.

Manotti is the pen name of Marie-Noëlle Thibault, born in Paris in 1942. She was a student in 1968 and describes the shock of France’s bloody involvement in the Algerian war for independence as the key event that oriented her towards a life of political activity. At university she joined the French Communist Party and went on to do a doctorate in economic history. For many years she taught history at Vincennes, where she was a union leader and worked on the journal Les Cahiers de mai. She published her first roman noir in 1995.

Manotti has a recurring detective, Inspector Daquin, whom she is clearly fond of and who we in turn warm to as readers. He is a classic noir character: a flawed and brilliant outsider, sensitive but with a violent streak. He is the same age as Manotti but unlike her played no role in 1968 – all we learn is that he was ‘out of the country’ at the time. By giving Daquin no association with a period that for her was crucial, Manotti distanced herself from her protagonist, perhaps to avoid caricature, or loading him with too much partisan baggage. Daquin is also gay and has a tormented past, which comes back in flashes throughout the books, as in the following extract from KOP from 1998. The style is typical Manotti – little bursts of biographical detail about her characters, infrequent but enough to give us a clear sense of each of them, with a curious switching between third and first person that lends immediacy to the scene:

Daquin enters the main hall of the hospital of Lisle-en-Seine. He is at once overcome by anxiety. All through his childhood, the spectacle of his mother, high on drugs and alcohol, a very slow decline, a medically assisted suicide. Since then, a badly managed fear of the world of doctors. And then Lenglet, his old friend, dead from AIDS, in hospital, just two years ago… Sam (the journalist). Surprised to see his face so drawn, in this harsh light. I had forgotten already.

Five of Manotti’s books have appeared in English so far, and more have German, Italian and Spanish versions. In France, it was her 2008 novel Lorraine Connection which first reached a wide audience. It is one of her strongest books, its power perhaps deriving from her own experience as a union leader. The novel is inspired by a real incident: the fire that broke out at the Daewoo factory in Mont St Michel in 2003, which was blamed on trade unionists protesting ahead of the factory’s closure. Manotti did not believe the official account and so decided to investigate – the novel was the result. Among her other notable works are Bien connu des services de police from 2010, which won France’s most prestigious crime-writing prize. Dedicated to her students in the Saint-Denis college where she had taught for many years, the novel was inspired by the wave of police violence in the suburbs in 2005. Another accomplished novel, L’honorable société, co-written with a fellow noir author Hervé Albertazzi – penname DOA – and originally intended to be a television series, was published the following year. It follows a group of environmental activists who witness a murder and become embroiled in a political cover-up.

In Marseille 73, Manotti returns to a time and place she had already visited in a previous novel, Or noir from 2015. The earlier book had dealt with the oil boom and rise of traders in the 1970s, featuring Daquin aged 27, just starting out in his first post with the Marseille police department. In Marseille 73 Daquin is with us again, but this time Manotti concentrates on a specific set of events in 1973. She says she was inspired to write the novel after learning about the wave of assassinations that had taken place that year in France, when some 50 people were killed in six months. The murders were targeted hits on Arabs, with 20 or so killed in Marseille alone. The deaths however were brushed under the carpet – Manotti only found out about them decades later. Typical of her modus operandi, she investigated. The novel appeared two years later.

‘I wrote it to resist forgetting’, she said in an interview published on her website. This is a simple way to summarize all her work. She uses fictional form to expose the real mechanics of power and corruption. ‘Warning’, she wrote at the start of Lorraine Connection, ‘This is a novel. Everything is true and everything is false.’

Marseille 73 is ultimately an indictment of France under Pompidou and Giscard d’Estaing, the presidents who came after 68 and who sought to erase the inglorious events of that period. These include the activities of the OAS, or L’Organisation armée secrète, the clandestine and murderous French paramilitary group that carried out terrorist attacks in Algeria in the last year of the war. De Gaulle had granted amnesty to its leaders in 1968, and by the 1970s they were being reintegrated into the police force and the army. Meanwhile, the racism of the Front National was on the rise.

The novel opens with an order made by the French government in 1972 that set the stage for the subsequent wave of violence the following year:

In the fall of 1972, the French government decided to control the immigrant population much more strictly than it had done until then. The Marcellin-Fontanet circular requires immigrants who wish to come to France or who already reside there to have an employment contract and to have adequate accommodation in order to be able to obtain a residence permit and thus be ‘regularized’. Eighty-six percent of immigrants present on French soil suddenly switch from the category of ‘unofficial workers’ to ‘illegal workers’ and overnight a new category, that of the ‘sans-papiers’ is created – making them candidates for expulsion from France in the summer of 1973.

In Grasse [a town near Marseille] as elsewhere, foreign workers feel threatened. They do not have work contracts or decent housing. On 11 June 1973, they protested in Grasse’s old town, where many had been housed in slums, and over the following days they decided to strike, calling for job contracts and better housing. At night, the city walls were covered with black and white posters reading: ‘Stop uncontrolled immigration’, signed under the new decree.

The Grasse mayor refused to meet with the workers and instead called in the riot police to crack down on protests, which they did with brutal enthusiasm. The local, non-Arab population was also spurred to action and a special anti-immigrant committee was created.

The declared objective is ‘to get rid of the thousand idlers who undermine the good reputation of the city’. The mayor tells the press: ‘these immigrant protests are absolutely scandalous and undermine public order. It is no less scandalous that they are not more severely repressed’. He adds, ‘It’s very tedious, you know, to be invaded by them’.

After this sobering prologue, the main story of Marseille 73 begins with the brutal murder of a bus driver, a real case that followed several targeted killings of immigrant workers in Marseille and dozens more deaths across the country. In the novel, Daquin discovers that the investigations carried out so far have been woefully inadequate. Generally the crimes were dismissed as instances of ‘settling scores between rival gangs’, regardless of whether the victims had criminal records. Then a particularly shocking murder takes place: a 16-year-old Algerian, Malek, is shot three times as he waited on the street for a friend. As Daquin looks into it, he discovers the initial investigations have been botched and that no real attempt is being made to find the killers – prompting him to quietly pursue the leads himself.  

The story is compelling as fiction, but it is shocking when considered as drawn from fact. Daquin’s investigation focuses on the killings, but he goes on to discover the disturbing truth about the police force – rife with racism and former OAS members – who saw Marseille as round two of the Algerian war. Marseille 73 details all of this as well as the rise of the far-right groups that legitimised anti-immigrant sentiment. It is interesting to learn that in the 1970s the media had not yet started to demonize the Front National; instead there was a generalized complacency by reporters to covering the wave of violence towards Arab communities. The police, meanwhile, are portrayed as operating more like a mafia, with decisions made in dark bistros and business considerations looming large over promotions within the force. Daquin can only rely on a few trusted colleagues and the family of the dead teenager, who are portrayed in stark contrast to the police. We also gain insight into how immigrant workers organized strikes over the lack of justice for the killings.

True to her definition of the noir genre resolving nothing by the end of the story, Marseille 73 offers no satisfactory final scene in the drawing room with the perpetrator of the crime exposed and moral order reestablished. Daquin’s investigation does manage to put a police officer in jail – the henchman Picon, Malek’s killer. But on his first night locked up he dies. The official report says it was a heart attack, but everyone involved in the case knows it was an inside job: Picon was killed by his fellow officers, who feared that he would expose their corruption to save himself once he stood trial. When Daquin asks Malek’s family if they want to push for a conviction of Picon’s killers, they dismiss the idea of getting real justice for their son  – Picon’s conviction was the best they could hope for. In France, Malek’s father says, the legal system tells us that as North Africans ‘our lives are worth nothing’.

One does not read Manotti’s novels for subtle psychological portraits or the cool literary style found in the best noir fiction. Her prose is closer to being ‘cinematic’, as it was described by one French reviewer. The action moves along swiftly; we have few inner thoughts of characters but a great deal about their environment and about their interactions with each other. Marseille 73 is a fine example of this, but its subject matter is particularly unsettling and important. Algeria continues to cast a long shadow in France decades after the end of the war, and much still remains unsaid or hidden from view. Manotti employs her training as a historian to unearth the facts, and the techniques of noir to chip away at shameful events that we should not be allowed to forget.

Read on: Emilie Bickerton on the autofiction of Fatima Daas.


The Struggle for Merdeka

In August 2020, seven West Papuan political prisoners, held in Jakarta for protesting outside the Indonesian Presidential Palace, were released early following an international campaign. They received a rapturous reception on their return. Thousands gathered to greet them – a demonstration of the widespread opposition to Indonesian rule in this province on the island of New Guinea. A year earlier, hundreds of thousands marched, rioted and burned down state buildings across the country during a month-long uprising. Emboldened by this resistance, in December the largest West Papuan independentist group declared a provisional government-in-waiting, ready to form the world’s newest nation state. Jakarta’s political and media elites promptly went into meltdown. A star line-up of Indonesian officials, from the head of the military to the security minister, clamoured to denounce the liberation movement and its leader, the newly appointed Interim President Benny Wenda, currently living in exile in the UK. A minor diplomatic crisis ensued when the British ambassador was summoned to explain his position on Wenda’s would-be government, and meekly affirmed Britain’s respect for ‘the territorial integrity of the Unitary State of Indonesia’.

The decades-long struggle of indigenous West Papuans for what they call merdeka – independence and liberation – has today matured into a popular anticolonial movement. During the era of decolonization, West Papuans were cheated of their right to form an independent state. As the Netherlands prepared to lower its flag in the early 1960s, Jakarta moved to seize the region, believing it should form part of the new Republic of Indonesia. President Sukarno enlisted the support of the Kennedy administration, which had been cultivating pro-Western elements in the Indonesian military in order to win a bloody showdown with the Indonesian Communist Party. The last thing the US needed was a war between Indonesia and the Dutch over West Papua, which would strengthen the Communists domestically and hence push the country further from the West’s orbit. Instead, Kennedy wanted Indonesian forces to swiftly seize West Papua before turning to its real task: the elimination of the left and the transformation of Indonesia into an economic vassal (duly achieved in the bloodbaths of the mid-1960s). The Dutch capitulated, and the UN stepped in to rubber-stamp a stage-managed ‘referendum’ on Indonesian control in 1969. The Suharto government then set about wrenching West Papua’s indigenous population out of an imagined ‘Stone Age’ – launching military operations to get the Papuans ‘down from the trees’, as one of Suharto’s foreign ministers put it.  

Since the 1960s, the different wings of the liberation struggle – civil resistance movements, armed guerrillas, diasporic diplomats and campaigners – have been working towards the common goal of an independence referendum with varying degrees of coordination. Within West Papua, three of the most significant independence factions came together in 2014 under the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), chaired by Benny Wenda. Representing a gamut of Papuan political opinion, from religious-nationalist to tribal-environmentalist, the ULMWP represents the most effective Papuan resistance group in the history of the struggle. It is complemented by a mass organization, the Komite National Papua Barat, which arranges regular demonstrations and petitions. The guerrilla groups, such as the umbrella West Papua Army, work in the forests and highland areas, harrying Indonesian military and police brigades; though, without the support of a well-resourced external state, these armed cadres are a thorn in the side of the Indonesian occupation rather than a genuine challenge. Due to the repression of the movement – one of the last unifying West Papuan leaders, Theys Eluay, was strangled to death by Indonesian special forces in 2002 – the West Papuan leadership tend to be in exile in Australia, the UK or the Netherlands. These figures coordinate with the movement on the ground while working to rally international solidarity. They have recently succeeded in pushing West Papua onto the agenda of the 18-state Pacific Islands Forum and the 79-member Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States.

Mainstream NGOs tend to focus on the violations of civil and political rights in West Papua, but the daily grind of settler colonialism – what one scholar describes as a ‘cold genocide’ similar to the early stages of dispossession in Australia and North America – is in many ways a more central concern for the independence movement. In 2019, one of the few international delegations to gain access to the territory described the ‘systemic marginalization … and discrimination against the indigenous Papuan population, and their exclusion from the development process’ – a situation ‘destructive both of the environment and traditional livelihoods’. Resistance to this takes a variety forms. Rural Papuans from the Nduga Regency, displaced in their tens of thousands by Indonesian military operations over the past two years, have rejected ‘aid’ offered by Indonesian troops and refused to return to their villages until the military withdraws; an indigenous trade union has several times paralysed production at the world’s largest gold mine and third largest copper mine, operated by US company Freeport-McMoRan.

For the Indonesian state, West Papua is a key part of the Master Plan for Acceleration and Expansion of Indonesia’s Economic Development, drawn up under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2011. This blueprint sub-divides the Indonesian archipelago, assigning each region its own development plan, and instigating a national division of labour that is designed to propel the Indonesian economy forward. West Papua falls under the Program for the Rapid Development of Papua and West Papua, replete with a unit – essentially a government ministry – controlled largely by the military. The aim is to industrialize agriculture in West Papua, reducing the need for the labour of Papuans who employ small-scale farming techniques (roughly two-thirds of the entire population). In this vision, the territory will eventually become a ‘rice-bowl’ for the rest of Indonesia’s 250 million people, with additional benefits accruing from global export markets. It is not uncommon to find members of the Indonesian bourgeoisie, such as business tycoon Anindya Bakrie, gasping over the ‘great potential of West Papua’s natural and human resources’.

The industrialization plan typically involves the creation of vast mono-plantations, often in palm oil. Huge areas of the New Guinea rainforest – one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet – have been cleared to make way for plantations, often run by East and Southeast Asian companies (some of which supply leading Western corporations, including Kellogg’s and Nestlé). This clearing, in many cases achieved through illegal slash-and-burn techniques on land fraudulently acquired from Papuan communities, takes a tremendous toll on the indigenous people. Their natural environment is ripped up and replaced with ecologically catastrophic estates; villages are transformed into cash reserves for foreign companies, and local economies are forced to rely on their largesse. One researcher catalogued the effects of this process on the Malind Anim tribal group, whose access to their nearest river was blocked by a huge palm oil plantation. Its arrival meant that the land could no longer provide for them as before, leaving them reliant on compensation payments from the palm oil company to purchase food from local stores. This cycle of dispossession and dependency is common to many Papuan tribes. Large numbers of indigenous people have also been displaced by the new Trans-Papua Highway, a vast road which tears though forests and protected reserves, integrating West Papua into the Indonesian economy and allowing for the smooth transportation of agricultural goods out of the provinces. Papuans, left with little other option, have relocated to the edges of the road, hoping to eke out a living selling timber to Indonesian settlers. Such infrastructure projects have thereby facilitated the expansion of the market economy. Villagers who once hunted in the forest must now chop it down and sell it to survive.

Indigenous cultural traditions and social bonds are also being transformed. Palm oil companies divide communities against each other through patronage and bribery schemes, and have often hijacked local magic rituals to advance their financial interests. A prominent indigenous organization warned in 2017 that ‘the culture and tradition of the indigenous peoples … will slowly disappear’ if their ancestral lands are ‘taken over indiscriminately by corporations’. At the same time, Indonesian special forces – many trained by Western states – have suffused Papuan society with surveillance mechanisms and informers, fostering an atmosphere of paranoia. Indigenous beliefs about the underworld are manipulated by making assassinations look like the work of vampires or ninjas. One anthropologist found an Indonesian military training manual that set out ‘methods for using local cultural beliefs in psychological operations and campaigns of terror’. This epistemological assault intends to break West Papuans’ political resistance. The indigenous people are witnessing their civilisation collapse in tandem with their sense of self, just as the village of Umuofia decomposes under the influence of Christian missionaries in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

The Indonesian establishment partly owes its longevity to this perpetual raiding of West Papua. The military subsidises its budget with business interests in illegal logging, brothels and protection rackets for Western corporations like Freeport (and often stages attacks on these companies in order to justify its lucrative security arrangements). During Suharto’s New Order – which ran from 1966 to 1998 – roughly 40% of the national budget came from West Papuan sources, much of it from the Freeport mine. Small wonder, then, that when reformers in Jakarta promise to solve West Papuan grievances with the gift of development, the supposed beneficiaries turn their backs. As Benny Wenda often says, the people of West Papua are not asking for ‘development’ – they are asking for freedom. The 2019 uprising and formation of the provisional government have forced this demand onto the Indonesian national agenda, and garnered international attention after decades of near silence. Solidarity groups are coalescing, with non-Papuan Indonesians willing to face arrest and even imprisonment for challenging the colonial consensus. The mass protests inside Indonesia in 2019 signal a budding alliance between West Papuans and Indonesian workers, students and peasants, all of whom are suffering under the same plutocratic order. Whilst the odds are still stacked against the Papuans, all parties look to East Timor – an unlikely victor against the genocidal Indonesian occupation at the turn of the millennium – and wonder whether West Papua might one day follow suit.

Read on: Rohanna Kuddus on Indonesia’s ‘Ghosts of 1965’.


Reading the Room

Since its consolidation at the end of the eighteenth century, the realist novel has been the premier vehicle for the depiction of contemporary life. For over two hundred years, a relatively fixed set of representational techniques – point-of-view, voice, description, dialogue, plot – has managed to adapt to the radical transformations of modernity: the nuclearization of the family, the entry of women into public life, the liberalization of sexual mores, industrialization and deindustrialization, urbanization and suburbanization, secularization, the lifeworlds of dominated classes and colonized nations, war on a planetary scale, and new conceptions of cognition and identity formation, to name just a few. By doubling down on its core strength – the linguistic representation of inner experience – the novel even managed to fend off challenges from rival media, like film and television. But over the last decade or so it has become clear that changes in the texture of the contemporary itself, due primarily to the diffusion of digital networked media, have begun to strain the capacity of the novel – as an institution, as a medium, as a form – to fulfil its traditional remit.

The reason most often given for this is that, bound to the format and economics of the book, an increasingly Jurassic technology, the novel’s production cycle cannot keep pace with the accelerated timescale of the internet, which contracts what counts as the contemporary into shorter and shorter units of duration by flooding the collective consciousness with data. To write a novel, find it representation, sell it, edit it, design its cover, copyedit it, check the proofs, print it, promote it, publish it, and distribute it requires a year at an absolute minimum, and almost always much longer than that. And in a year’s worth of contemporary time whole epochs can pass and be forgotten. This is in part why we have seen the prestige of genre fiction – specifically historical fiction and science fiction – rise at the expense of literary realism, and why so many so-called literary authors have turned to these genre forms. The historical novel, broadly defined as any novel set in a time before social media, sidesteps the question of the contemporary altogether, turning over to the reader the task of drawing any parallels with the present, whenever that happens to be. Whereas the science fiction novel, set in a speculative future, gambles that reality will meet it sooner or later, but ideally at a moment coincident with the pub date chosen by sales and marketing. The number of recent science fiction novels which have been praised as ‘prescient’ should give the game away: if each represents a possible world, and hundreds if not thousands of them are produced per annum, the laws of probability suggest that a handful of these will guess correctly how some aspect of the contemporary will look one day.

For the literary novelist who nevertheless wishes to depict what Trollope called The Way We Live Now, and who therefore cannot ignore the extent to which ‘being’ and ‘being online’ have come to overlap, two other, less-often-discussed technical challenges immediately present themselves. The first is what I’ll call, following Fredric Jameson, the ‘collective representation problem’: how can any of the narrative perspectives available to realist fiction function as metonyms for the perspectives of the hundreds of millions of users on a single social media platform? The second, related problem is what I’ll call the ‘formal mirroring problem’: how should this narrative perspective translate the user experience of one medium into a different medium? As more and more ‘Internet Novels’ are written, it is worth exploring how a recent entry in this quickly consolidating genre, Fake Accounts, the debut novel of the critic Lauren Oyler, published earlier this month, handles these two challenges.

In both cases, the novel’s strategy is the same: acknowledgement and disavowal, followed by a lateral move onto a parallel track. Consider the following exchange, set in an early epoch of the Trump eon. The unnamed narrator, who has returned to New York from attending the Women’s March in Washington D.C., has run into a friend, who has also just come from an anti-Trump protest. Everyone was talking about impeachment, the friend reports. ‘Who was everyone?’ the narrator wants to know. Her friend answers: ‘The people who spoke’ at the rally, though it is unclear whether these were organizers with microphones, or whisperers in the crowd. Either way, the narrator, a media professional and avid Twitter user, knows that simply speaking on some particular occasion cannot define a coherent public in an age when billions of people have access to – but no control over – the means of communication. In fact, nothing can. ‘The group’, she observes, ‘regardless of its size, could always be dismissed as not representing everyone else, a group that was always unfathomably larger’. There are social types in the twenty-first century – the narrator is one of them – just as there were in Balzac’s time, but because of the size of the online public sphere, none of these can be translated into representative figures, deserving of consideration on this basis alone. (Needless to say, this would also hold, mutatis mutandis, for novels like Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides or Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, which employ first person plural narration.) That collective representation is impossible may have been just as true when Balzac generated his ‘physiognomies’, but the limited, socially homogenous nature of his reading public allowed him and them to remain ignorant of this fact in a way that is simply not available to a contemporary writer, who is reminded of it every time she goes online, where there are different degrees of everybody, just as in set theory there are different degrees of infinity. The ‘universally acknowledged’ truth with which Austen opens Pride and Prejudice (and indeed, the realist novel proper) is meant to be ironic, but the irony comes at the expense of a culture that could still be said to genuinely believe in such things.

Oyler’s narrator is ‘a white woman living in Brooklyn’ (later an American living in Berlin) though of course she does ‘not identify as such’. She lays claim to our attention not on the basis of her demographic representativeness, impossible in any event, but on the basis of her particular expertise. Like Felix, the narrator’s love interest, whom she meets while he is leading a pub crawl through Berlin Mitte, she functions as a tour guide to the Land of the Very Online, a place likewise populated by unreliable narrators and their fake accounts. (Felix, the narrator discovers, after persuading him to move to New York with her, has been moonlighting as a prominent online conspiracy theorist, furnishing her with an excuse to break up with him. In the course of the novel, he will indulge in a hoax even more audacious than that.)

‘There seemed to be two options for engaging with the world’, the narrator writes, ‘desperate close reading and planned obsolescence’ and she opts, at first, for the former, describing with ethnographic precision the distinctive nomenclatures and mentalities fostered by the algorithms of Twitter, Instagram, Tinder, and OKCupid and the non-virtual cultures and subcultures that have been drawn into their orbit. Oyler’s narrator is perhaps the most self-aware character in recent American fiction, which has produced such characters en masse; she is even more self-aware, I’d argue, than Adam Gordon, the narrator from Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, which Oyler astutely gives to one of the book’s minor characters. But by self-aware I do not only mean the way that Fake Accounts draws attention to its status as fiction, from the macro-level of the title and the section titles (‘Beginning’, ‘Backstory’, ‘Middle (Something Happens)’, ‘Middle (Nothing Happens)’, ‘Climax’, ‘End’) down to the micro-level of punctuation (‘A drunk coworker had once let me know that I’d established myself as a somewhat retrograde cynic, a toxic presence in the office but ultimately safe from firing because, among other skills, I was one of only two people on staff who knew how semicolons worked; my leaving was a wash’). Whether she is talking about her own motives, anticipating other characters’ reactions to her speech, looks, gestures, and behaviour (online and off), or deconstructing the cant and lazy thinking fostered by the structure of these platforms, the narrator is able – and more importantly, willing – to make the rules of each and every game explicit. To the extent that she can plausibly function as an ‘everywoman’, it is not because the story she tells is representative, but because in it she acts as both player and referee.

It is one thing, as a novelist, to have your characters anticipate the reactions of other characters: you have many drafts to give your protagonist the perfect lines. It is another thing entirely to play this game with the reader, whose reactions are ultimately beyond your control. And yet it is by taking this risk that Oyler gives her solution to the ‘formal mirroring problem’. Again, the problem is first acknowledged. The narrator is listening to a podcast interview with a writer whose new novel is cut up into short, aphoristic paragraphs on the grounds that ‘this structure…mimics the nature of modern life, which is “fragmented”’. In an Internet Novel, there is a strong temptation to reproduce the look of the site in the format of the book as a means of reproducing a character’s experience of consuming digital media. Unfortunately, however skilled an author may be at producing the ‘reality effect’ in her novel, books are still physical objects – fixed, finite collections of signs – whereas digital media is a discontinuous swarm of signs (and sounds and images) in perpetual, recombinant flux. Whenever authors have yielded to the temptation to make fragmentation the solution to the ‘formal mirroring problem’, the result is disappointing, and Oyler’s narrator does not hesitate to register her disappointment with it. ‘Why would I want to make my book like Twitter?’ she asks. ‘If I wanted a book that resembled Twitter, I wouldn’t write a book; I would just spend even more time on Twitter’. To mirror the appearance of social media in fragmentary prose forfeits the realist novel’s capacity for sustained description in exchange for a gimmicky caricature of digital media, and only serves to confirm the latter medium’s ascendency over the former. In ‘Middle (Nothing Happens)’, the narrator parodies this fragmented style and it is, as she herself foresees, the weakest section of the book.

Here it is worth recalling that the realist novel is itself an attempted solution to a ‘formal mirroring problem’, namely, how to translate the medium of oral storytelling, which requires the simultaneous co-presence of storyteller and audience, to written storytelling, in which the author is separated both physically and temporally from the reader. Up through the eighteenth century, authors were anxious enough about whether readers would accept this translation that they often felt it necessary to account for the existence of their texts before settling down to tell their stories. The frame narrative, the found manuscript, and most famously, the epistolary novel are nothing more than a series of narrative bootstrapping operations carried out for an audience that had yet to be trained to find the realist novel’s autonomous narrative ‘voice’ plausible. Another device, borrowed from theatre – a genre that, like oral storytelling, requires the physical co-presence of actor and audience – was direct address, such as Fielding, for example, employs in Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews. It is the extensive use of this device – in contravention, incidentally, of the ‘best practices’ of Creative Writing 101– that Oyler’s self-aware narrator turns to such good account in her Internet Novel.

‘As a writer you have to think of the reader’, the narrator says in the book’s concluding section, winking at the reader – but perhaps also at Flaubert and Henry James, who, writing during the golden age of the novel, when the form was at the uncontested height of cultural dominance, would have strenuously disagreed. Fake Accounts contains much implicit anticipation of the reader’s response, as well as traditional forms of direct address, but Oyler formalizes the procedure by maintaining a regular dialogue with a group of absent characters she calls ‘my ex-boyfriends’ whose commentary – sometimes collective, sometimes individuated – on the book’s events the narrator imagines coming from ‘the audience’, thereby reproducing in print the oral storytelling scenario. (The word ‘audience’ is derived from the Latin audire, ‘to hear’; the chorus of course derives from Attic theatre.) The ‘ex-boyfriends’ are generally well-disposed toward the narrator, even if, being exes, they also know her well enough to take her stories with a grain of salt, and to take a certain pleasure from watching her romantic pratfalls. They thus function as surrogates for the book’s readership: they express scepticism, concern, impatience, sympathy, respectful disagreement, befuddlement, vindication, and solidarity. In this reader’s experience at least, they performed their role with uncanny accuracy.

If this strategy represents an improvement over the ‘fragmentation solution’, it is not only because Oyler is particularly skilled at it, it is because she has identified an existing novelistic technique that translates the dialogical (or if you prefer, polyphonic) situation that exists on a site like Twitter, rather than merely imitating its look or feel. Twitter disciplines posters into the kind of self-awareness shown by Oyler’s narrator, by accustoming them to a state of all-encompassing auto-surveillance and by giving them real-time metrics for the success or failure of each of their statements. Clever tweets, saying what is on people’s minds, quote tweeting with praise for the right account, dunking on another account that has sparked outrage, trolling, creating a meme or prompt or formula, posting pictures of cute children and pets, etc., can be positively reinforced with likes and rewarded with amplified influence – but for those who become ‘main characters’, perhaps because they have failed to ‘read the room’, a pseudo-space with ever-shifting dimensions and occupants: Vae Victis! Despite being a largely textual medium, Twitter reproduces the conditions of oral storytelling more closely than the novel does: temporal co-presence replaces spatial co-presence, which is mediated by the site and screen, but this is enough to create the kind of n-dimensional feedback loop between addressers and addressees that the technique of direct address in the eighteenth-century novel was invented to mimic on a much smaller scale.

It may seem surprising that a twenty-first-century writer should turn to eighteenth-century techniques in a novel about that most contemporary of technologies and the world it has produced. Perhaps it shouldn’t be. After all, as Susan Stewart observes in Crimes of Writing, her study of the literary economy of eighteenth-century Britain, the period was characterized by the evisceration of the existing social safety net, the commodification of the word, new technologies for its dissemination, an explosion in the supply of and demand for it, the alienation of language-producers from language-consumers, the hackification of freelancers, cutthroat competition between them, and the crumbling of traditional reception contexts and authenticating mechanisms, which led, in turn, to a wave of conspiracisms, nostalgias, forgeries, impostures, grifts, hoaxes, and yes, fake accounts.

The technologies may have changed dramatically, but thanks in part to them Oyler’s narrator and Felix have had to adapt themselves to similar and similarly perilous socio-economic and psychic terrain. Extreme self-awareness of the sort the narrator displays may be necessary for survival on such terrain, but it is not conducive to the formation of a stable self – the crowning achievement of the protagonist in the standard realist novel. Rather, it represents its vanishing point. In the end, what attracts the narrator to Felix is that they are both incorrigible fabricators of themselves, and he is the only person who has ever managed to trick her (and not just once) into taking fiction for reality. Ironically, in doing so, he gives her a glimpse at what having a stable self requires: a commitment to allowing at least one of the rules of the game to remain implicit. The shape-shifting novel ends on a decidedly ambiguous note, but one way of reading the narrator’s character arc is to see in it a move from the ‘close reading’ that comes from engaging with the world via digital media, to the ‘planned obsolescence’ of disengagement from it, a necessary condition for performing such antiquated activities as falling in love, or writing a novel called Fake Accounts.

Oyler’s novel marks two technical advances in the representation of being online, but it is beyond the purview of a single book to decide the contest between the medium of the novel and its most recent rival, which is not ultimately a question of form. Fake Accounts was published a mere three weeks ago, but since then a new genre has congealed, in part, around it: the Internet Novel. The name suggests an attempt to assimilate the former term into the latter, with the Internet as just another object the novel may or may not elect to describe. But bringing the two terms together in the first place puts them on an equal footing, and betrays an unspoken anxiety about the latter’s eclipse by the former – an uneasy recognition that the Internet is not merely an object, nor is being online simply an activity, but that taken together they are a metonym for a series of social relations so extensive and intensive that they have contaminated all the other objects of potential representation too. Thus, even at a purely formal level, the two problems remain in tension with each other. As we have seen, the self-awareness used to solve the ‘collective representation problem’ and the ‘formal mirroring problem’ of representing digital media in a novel winds up swallowing its own tail. Oyler’s narrator, always one step ahead, seems to acknowledge this. Fake Accounts may be her novel, but in it Twitter gets the last word.

Read on: Claudio Magris’s reflections on the novel’s historical course.


Thrill Rides

On Wednesday morning, I drove up to Magic Mountain to get the first shot of the vaccine.

Six Flags Magic Mountain is a gigantic amusement park thirty-five miles north of downtown Los Angeles, near the intersection of the 5, the freeway which runs from the border with Mexico to the border with Canada, and the 126, a two-lane highway towards Ventura, where the death toll is astronomical, due to the absence of a centre divider to avoid head-on collisions, or guard rails to prevent lethal spinouts on the curves. Magic Mountain is known for its roller coasters, providing a selection of different ways to experience falling, flying, floating – losing one’s sense of orientation and balance. I myself don’t take roller coasters, or any other gravity-defying rides, having had a particularly mind-bending experience on a rickety apparatus at Battersea Fun Fair in the late summer of 1967. They had to stop the machine mid-ride to let me off, my screams registering a different level of terror. I was twelve. A group of people gathered to watch me dismount, shaking and sobbing; that was enough for me.

The variety and extent of the massive ‘thrill rides’ at Magic Mountain are visible from the 5, itself a monumental concrete surface, five or six lanes running in each direction, with on and off ramps expanding and contracting, at a scale that dissolves any human measure. To the west, driving north, the enormous curves and sudden drops of the steel structures at Magic Mountain appear, as if by magic, emerging out of the scrubby unpopulated hills, and in the past, if you opened your window, you could sometimes hear the cries of participants as the death drop let them fall. The rides are silent now: you cannot socially distance and scream at the same time – tears may be transmissions and any desperate clutching at a companion is potentially lethal. So-called amusement parks are places to play with death; on the roller coasters, we are held tightly, safe as houses, while our bodies sense only danger, free fall, the abyss. These are forbidden pleasures, now.

In Les Jeux et Les Hommes, Roger Caillois outlines the ways that human beings have fun, defining play as ‘an occasion of pure waste: waste of time, ingenuity, skill, and often of money.’ Caillois proposes a classification of all play within four categories: competition (agôn), chance (alea), simulation (mimicry), or vertigo (ilinx). A combination of competition and chance structures most games. Mimicry designates games where ‘the subject makes believe or makes others believe that he is someone other than himself’. This complicated category includes ‘any distraction, mask, or travesty’, as well as our deep propensity, despite everything, to identify with footballers or actors or characters in a book. Finally, ilinx (from the Greek, whirlpool) designates games ‘based on the pursuit of vertigo and which consist of an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind’. He describes children who whirl in circles until they are too dizzy to stand up, as well as the spasmodic thrills of amusement parks, where mechanical ‘contraptions’ cause people to ‘shriek with fright, gasp for breath, and have the terrifying impression of visceral fear.’ I like to think of the whirlpool in relation to the digital world, where the formal consistency of the ubiquitous rectangle situates us in a field of apparently infinite spatial and temporal possibility. We require the rectangle, as our algorithmic identities form and dissolve; it holds us in its frame. But viral is no longer a metaphor; the pandemic isn’t digital, and neither is Magic Mountain. It’s all too mechanical: we can view the colossal apparatuses of panic from a great distance, wildly out of perspective, like a dream landscape promising desperate pleasures to miniature people. These rides are record-breaking, historic, with names like Viper and Apocalypse and Drop of Doom. Closer, the wide open spaces of the parking lots appear, built to accommodate thousands upon thousands of pleasure-seekers. I wouldn’t have chosen Magic Mountain as my destination, but the digital interface for people like me (over 65 years old) was so overloaded, continually crashing and contradictory, that eventually I gave up looking for a vaccination in the city. I was thrilled when I finally booked a slot at the periphery of the county, driving out to Magic Mountain was not too far to go.

I arrived ten minutes before my appointment, about three quarters of an hour after I’d left my house. I’d run out of gas on the drive up; I reckoned I had about 30 miles left in the tank, as empty does not really mean empty any more. I joined the queue of cars entering the amusement park, fighting for my place in line as the lanes narrowed from three, to two, to one. And then we stopped. We sat in our cars in the winter sunshine, in a long line that stretched out of sight. I was listening to a podcast about a pop record called Beyond Disco, put out in 1985 by two Pakistani-British siblings living in Birmingham. The lead singer, Nermin Niazi, was 14 years old, still in school; she wrote the songs with her brother and sang them in Urdu. According to the podcast, she is now an officer in the Metropolitan Police, living in Epsom.

Massive looping structures, ghostly roller coasters recalling the curved lines and verticals of Tatlin’s Tower, loomed over us. I had been to a number of drive-through COVID-19 testing sites in Los Angeles, and I’d never spent more than 40 minutes creeping forward, back and forth, along the zig-zag maze made of bright orange traffic cones, towards the open tent, temporary site of shade and natural ventilation. Here, the immense parking lot was packed to capacity, crisscrossed with hundreds of cars moving slowly and then stopping for ten minutes at a time. I listened to my podcast. I checked again that I had my driver’s license (to prove I am a resident of Los Angeles, as well as my age) and the confirmation email on my phone. I didn’t need to show my health insurance cards, as the vaccine is free. Sitting in the driver’s seat, staring at the light on the distant mountains, I gradually lost any sense of scale, time and space expanding and contracting in my solitude. Quarantine – or quar, a little nickname for texting – has produced a strange sense of time, as the months go by, yet isolation within the confines of my car is familiar, part of everyday life in Los Angeles.

There’s an elusive sense of community that occasionally emerges among cars moving together on the freeway. I remember driving home alone late one night when I first moved from London to Los Angeles, over thirty years ago. I was driving fast and felt a sense of distant companionship with the other solitary drivers in the darkness, a strange solidarity, echoing the camaraderie I remembered feeling when sitting on the top deck of the last bus at the end of an evening out. That imaginary connection has eroded. In the lines of cars at Magic Mountain, almost everyone kept their car windows rolled up, as if fearful of the virus blowing in, and drivers were annoyed if someone didn’t move forward instantly when some space opened before them. One car at a time, punching its way forward, in contrast to my memory of the seemingly choreographed flow of cars on the empty freeway at night. Here, my Subaru was a giant mask, a little safe house, an isolation chamber on wheels. The deserted parking lots of Magic Mountain, the Forum (an arena where I saw Prince perform), Dodger Stadium, have been reclaimed as public space, only to be transformed into health care centres, crammed with cars instead of bodies. I remembered Ballard’s Crash, and Cronenberg’s movie, the erotics of speed and collision. Like Burroughs, Ballard studied medicine.

Stopping, starting, I recognized the irony: this was an inversion of the category of the thrill ride. There was no speed, no sensation of flying, or falling, or spinning out; only incremental forward motion interrupted by long periods of stasis. I was seriously worried that I would run out of gas, picturing the scene of my incapacitated car blocking the route of all the thousands of cars behind me, as the switchback lanes offered no possibility of an exit. This humiliation would be still worse than the moment when people at Battersea Fun Fair clustered around to watch, laughing, as I staggered off the turn-you-upside-down-and-spin-you-round-and-round machine. I was beginning to feel hungry, my body clock chiming in. In his discussion of amusement parks in Thrills and Regressions, Michael Balint suggests that the fizzy drinks and excessively sweet foodstuffs of the funfair – like cotton candy or candy floss – return us to a stage of development that could only be described as infantile. We regress to a condition where we have not yet learned, as babies must, to ignore our inner sensations, so that the pink melting strands of sugar, the swig of Coca-Cola (too cold, too sweet, too fizzy) take us back to that earlier time, when every feeding was an adventure – a roller coaster ride – the longed-for burp essential to the windy baby’s health and wellbeing.

The Magic Mountain is a novel by Thomas Mann, who lived in exile in Los Angeles for a decade; I read it when I was a teenager. Sitting in my car, I recalled very little about it, remembering only that it is set in a sanatorium for tuberculosis and there is a beautiful woman who is, perhaps, slowly dying. Last year I took up listening to audio-books while driving and quickly discovered what I liked best: long novels that I’ve already read in a former life – Little Dorrit, Can You Forgive Her?, Middlemarch. The Wings of the Dove was an exception: the sentences were too elaborate, too internal, and the emotional repercussions too subtle for my ears to take in properly, especially on the freeway. Too fast, too slow. This despite the fact that Henry James dictated his late books to a woman typewriter, as they were called, as he perambulated up and down, enunciating every word.

I kept checking the time and I therefore know precisely how long I sat in my car, anticipating the pain of the injection to come, distracted by the podcasts about 80s music, fearful of the imminent catastrophe of a car that wouldn’t move – a car that would shift from being a vehicle to an obstacle in an instant. I know how long it was: two hours and forty minutes. When I finally pulled up to tent number 11, I was elated; I thanked the two women, fully covered in PPE, for being there, and told them with a laugh that I had run out of gas before I arrived at the vaccination centre hours before. The woman who was typing on the laptop looked up and said, ‘Living on the edge!’ We all laughed. Sitting in my car, I pulled my t-shirt aside and the needle went in. At last! And then, anti-climax: I had to wait another 15 minutes, to make sure that I did not have an allergic reaction. I drove forward, joined a single file of stopped cars, turned off my ignition. Another friendly woman wrapped in PPE came to chat with me; she made a note of the time I would be allowed to leave and placed the orange paper under my windscreen wiper. I made a comment as I thanked her, about how we smile with our eyes now. She explained that if I felt I was having an allergic reaction, I should honk my horn loudly, and a nurse would run over – she pointed into the distance, across the expanse of empty concrete, towards nothing I could see. I briefly imagined a nurse running, trying to figure out which car was honking. Then I asked if I could leave my car unattended; it was almost four hours since I’d downed a cup of tea and left my house, and I was considering using the portable toilets at the edge of the lot, despite the obvious risks. She said, no, that’s not possible, because what if you had your allergic reaction inside one of those? Momentarily I pictured myself collapsing in the darkness, no horn to honk.

Eventually my fifteen minutes were up and she came over to give me permission to go. As I drove to the gas station by the freeway, I felt grateful, a little triumphant, and angry, for all the people who can’t wait half the day in a car for a vaccine. Here, in Los Angeles, I am in a privileged minority; I am much less likely to get sick and I am more likely to get vaccinated, for many different reasons, a set of structural inequalities that can be mapped by neighbourhood and ethnicity. Unlike most people in this city, I live alone. I isolate in my car, in my house. I do not live in a multi-generational household, I do not do a high-risk job, I am not a health-care worker or a nail salon stylist or a grocery store clerk or a hospital cleaner or a warehouse worker or a delivery driver or an undocumented casual labourer – the list goes on. I have internet service and a laptop; I have a smart phone and a car; I can pay for gas. I have the time and the flexibility to return repeatedly, despite my frustration, day after day, to the almost incomprehensible websites purporting to offer appointments for vaccination to every Angeleno over the age of 65. In my solitude, I can keep trying, at different times of day; I can jump through hoops and hang on tight, while disappointment and elation propel me forward. Three weeks from now, when it’s time to get the second shot, I can drive up there again.

I’m intending to re-read The Magic Mountain, some time, a book about withdrawing from the world, but not now. Here in Los Angeles, hundreds of people are dying every day, although the doctors know so much more than they did in March and April last year, when hundreds of people were dying every day in New York. We thought there would be treatments by now, we imagined the chaotic scenes of overwhelmed emergency rooms wouldn’t be repeated. Instead we have a slew of vaccines, each with a different refrigerator, and proliferating variants that may make my hard-won vaccination irrelevant. Fauci calls the variants mutants; I hear him on the radio as I’m driving – ‘we need to neutralize the mutants!’ – and I think, has he never seen a science fiction movie? In the novel, the mountain is magic because people who are incurably ill get better, they can breathe. Here the magic is in the sudden drop, the voluptuous embrace of a collective near-death experience, all together, screaming as we fall. But we are not in this together; on the contrary, poor people are dying and rich people are not. In the vertiginous whirlpool of the pandemic, certain structures remain consistent, an invisible framework holding each of us in place.

Read on: Mike Davis’s seminal ‘political autopsy’ of Los Angeles.


In Defence of Ken Loach

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

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

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

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

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

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


Crooked Lebanon

In the lore of the Eastern Mediterranean, there is a saying (sometimes attributed to Jesus) that goes like this: ‘Things are treated with salt to prevent them from decaying. But if the salt is spoiled, there is no other remedy.’ In Lebanon, this adage has been proven both right and wrong. The current economic crisis was caused by endemic corruption; yet endemic corruption seems to be its only cure. Go figure!

What Lebanon has been experiencing since October 2019 is nothing short of a catastrophe. The country’s economic slump was first met with a great dose of aspiration, when large crowds converged on the main downtown square demanding accountability and reform. Yet, lacking a unified vision, after a few weeks this movement faded into pessimism and desperation. The crisis was then accelerated by the extortionary, vigilante embargo imposed by the US Treasury and State Department. The value of the Lebanese currency fell precipitously, the pandemic raged and unemployment rose. All of this was topped by the massive explosion in the port of Beirut on 4 August 2020 that left around 200 dead, 8,000 wounded and tens of thousands homeless (not to mention the attendant psychological and environmental damage).

The calamity that Lebanon now faces has its roots in decades of high-level mismanagement. The Taif peace agreement of 1989, which put an end to the Lebanese Civil War in 1990, promised a restructuring of the Lebanese political system and economy. However, the work centred around a delusional plan to revive Lebanon’s pre-Civil War role as a financial and service hub for the Middle East. The architect of this vision, the late Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, knew full well that realities on the ground would impede its realization: the geopolitical conditions that had permitted Lebanon to play such a role in the 60s and early 70s were not present in the 90s. Yet he moved forward unfazed, bribing the country to dance to his tune. Cash payments and other grand favours were doled out to key politicians, financiers, security officials, religious clerics and the media. Hariri surrounded himself with an army of ‘advisors’ from varying ideological persuasions and religious backgrounds so as to diffuse any serious resistance.

For some time, it seemed that Hariri’s dream was likely to prevail. The economy stabilized, the currency regained its footing and employment soared. The relentless drive to clean and renovate downtown Beirut brought back exuberant memories, tears of joy, and widespread elation that the ‘Paris of the Orient’ had returned. People flocked to places they hadn’t seen since 1975, reminiscing about old cafés and famous juice bars, or wandering in ancient alleyways once congested with merchants and shoppers. After sixteen years of Civil War, they were eager (to pretend) to put everything behind them and look to a promising future. Unfortunately, they were only looking at a choreographed past cleansed of its many miseries, and were determined not to confront the true cost of the Hariri project.

Like many Lebanese who left for the Gulf in the 1960s in search of wealth and opportunities, Hariri made his fortune as a front for several members of the Saudi Royal family, especially Prince Fahd before he became King. Fahd wanted a confidant to syphon millions of dollars from the Saudi treasury into his own pocket. Hariri obliged and launched a business empire that made billions for the duo. His international ambitions meanwhile spurred him to cultivate promising politicians in the West; the most successful case was Jacques Chirac, then the new and energetic Mayor of Paris. When Chirac became President in 1995, Hariri had a staunch Western ally who could open any door for him across the globe. Anchored by these two giants – Fahd and Chirac – Hariri was able to secure enough investments in the Lebanese economy to fund new projects: renovating the international airport, opening highways and shopping malls, constructing sports stadiums and so on.

Yet in 2000 Bashar al-Assad inherited the throne in Damascus. Assad had a personal dislike for Hariri and was determined to torpedo the savvy businessman’s political and financial ambitions, aided by some Lebanese proxies. Simultaneously, the unleashing of the US war machine following the 9/11 attacks transformed the region into a powder keg. Hariri’s assassination in 2005 dealt a major blow to the Lebanese economy, as the sole guarantor of Hariri’s modernizing vision was Hariri himself. Shortly after his demise, the focus of the domestic political class shifted to dividing the cake of corruption. Hariri’s son Saad, who became PM in 2009, was too incompetent to run the political circus, and proved an unmitigated failure at the financial level. Whereas Rafic had the will to mobilize his wealth and connections to achieve his national vision (however unpalatable it may have been), Saad had neither a coherent vision nor an overseas cachet, and squandered much of his inherited fortune through mismanagement. His entire political philosophy revolved around 1) harnessing the legacy of his father in order to assure that he was the only viable Sunni leader in Lebanon, and 2) replenishing his depleted coffers from the Lebanese treasury. The country therefore moved from dancing to Hariri’s tune, to watching his son dance to the tune of an increasingly bloated and self-serving establishment.  

Under Hariri junior, the mushrooming national debt turned into a runaway train – dragging the country and everyone in it towards assured disaster. External investment stopped flowing in at the rate needed to service the country’s vast corruption networks. The Central Bank resorted to a Ponzi scheme: borrowing more in order to meet its most pressing obligations, while continuing to feed the beast by channelling money into the pockets of politicians and financiers – fearful that the end of the patronage system would spell political ruin. High interest rates lured most Lebanese into keeping their deposits in the country, even though they knew it would all come crashing down someday. National debt surpassed $85 billion in September 2019. By that time local banks had invested a large portion of their clients’ deposits (especially those in US Dollars) in the Central Bank’s treasury bills, and could no longer get them back.

The dynamics of Lebanese corruption are perfectly illustrated by the electricity system, which is controlled by the Minister of Energy and plagued by regular outages and rationing. (Most people are forced to purchase electricity for a few hours a day from ‘protected’ private contractors who own and operate generators in different neighbourhoods across the country.) Between 2000 and 2018, the Lebanese government spent around $2 billion per year to run the two large power plants and maintain basic services. On top of outright embezzlement, the system of corruption involves supplying deficient fuel to electric plants at inflated prices, fraudulent contracts and overbilling for maintenance, employment of political supporters in the Energy Ministry, renting floating power plants from Turkey and securing luxurious commissions. It is estimated that an investment of $2 billion would have resolved the power shortages and slashed the yearly cost of electricity by 50 per cent. Several international governments, including Germany and Qatar, have supplied the Lebanese state with viable plans to resolve the issue – yet their recommendations have been rejected wholesale.

Thanks to such wilful acts of sabotage, in October 2019 the Central Bank finally ran short of foreign currency reserves, and could not pay back private banks or international investors. The mounting financial crisis was now fully exposed. Unable to honour their clients’ withdrawal requests, banks decided to halt cash payments altogether except for very small amounts (especially if the accounts were in US Dollars). In the meantime, a number of wealthy Lebanese managed to smuggle large chunks of their deposits into accounts in Europe (the figure is estimated at around $4 billion since Autumn 2019). One of those implicated in this offshore smuggling was the Governor of the Lebanese Central Bank, Riad Salamé, who is currently under investigation by the Attorney General of Switzerland for allegedly laundering a sum in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars.

When people took to the streets on 17 October 2019, their immediate complaint was the ‘WhatsApp tax’ that the government wanted to impose in order to levy more revenues amid the squeeze on poorer citizens. They also called for the ousting of the corrupt political class, especially Gebran Bassil, son-in-law and heir apparent of president Michel Aoun. Aoun’s outright refusal to rein in Bassil worsened the situation. The movement snowballed, and protests escalated. Within two weeks Prime Minister Hariri had resigned, causing a political crisis. The demonstrators proposed a remedy: a technocratic government. But in Lebanon, clean and efficient technocrats are an endangered species; it is hard to find qualified people who are actually capable of steering the country in the right direction, and not simply waiting for their piece of the pie. The government that was formed proved disastrously incapable on every level. Covid-19 and the explosion of an enormous quantity of ammonium nitrate at the port of Beirut (the original cargo measured 2,750 tons) completed the perfect storm: political deadlock, financial crisis, pandemic, and humanitarian-environmental disaster. Many were now no longer willing to tolerate Lebanon’s endemic corruption – or so they proclaimed.  

Yet if the Lebanese are victims of corruption, they are also its enablers. The characteristics known as Shatara and Harba’a are part of our DNA. Shatara refers to cleverness and craftiness; Harba’a comes from the Arabic word for chameleon: someone able to change colours as the situation demands. These are trademark features of the elite hustlers who have sent Lebanon’s economy into a tailspin. Ironically, they are also the only lifelines for many ordinary citizens, who have to rely on informal processes and low-level corruption to get by as the country teeters on the edge of abyss. Many of those who turned out to protest against political and financial malfeasance are themselves invested in the institution of corruption, albeit on a smaller scale.

Shatara and Harba’a are manifest at every level. Employees, especially in the public sector, typically supplement their income with kickbacks. For example, a bribe is required to get a driving permit renewed. This is often done through a ‘facilitator’ who takes the application and goes through the agency’s offices to get the necessary approvals and signatures. The applicant pays the facilitator, who takes a cut and gives the rest to the employees. (If one insists on doing the process oneself, the application will invariably be deemed incomplete or delayed until a facilitator is found.) Similarly, building inspectors – who are often police officers – demand outright bribes before they issue clearances. Knowing that each contractor breaks the rules to augment their profits, the inspector’s kickback is expected to match the scale of the violation. We call such payoffs a ‘sweet treat’ (hilwayni). The legal system, too, is plagued by hilwayni – often used to initiate an investigation, release an inmate, etc. – with bribes adjusted according to the office of the recipient. Lesser forms of corruption include the custom – in banks, supermarkets and other shops – not to return small change for transactions, with the employee pocketing them instead. Given close family bonds, these payments usually trickle down to a wide network of beneficiaries.

Corruption is also manifest in the sectarian system. Hezbollah, for instance, shields most of the vulnerable members of the Shi‘i community from the impacts of the multi-level crisis. For several years it has been running a parallel financial system that bypasses traditional banks and financial institutions. Thanks to the millions of dollars it brings into the country – invariably in cash – Hezbollah injects desperately needed hard currency that keeps the situation from deteriorating further. The party also has a large network of schools and clinics, as well as organizations that provide higher education scholarships.

The second Shi‘i power, the Amal Party led by Nabih Berri (Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament), has since the 1990s pursued a strategy of employing large numbers of Shi‘i supporters in all types of governmental agencies: a practice which has been critical for maintaining a bare minimum living standard for many families. The main Druze party, led by Walid Jumblatt, has likewise organized a huge machine of volunteers to distribute food and heating fuel to families in need. His constituencies have their own networks of schools and hospitals, and pretty much every Druze supporter who needs a scholarship to attend university can get one through the organizations controlled by Jumblatt and wealthy Druze entrepreneurs. The Maronite Church, with its immense treasures and connections, does the same for its community. In fact, the Sunnis are the sole demographic without an effective leader to advocate for their needs. This is due to various factors: the weakness of Saad Hariri, the vindictive measures taken by the Saudi Crown Prince to punish the Sunnis of Lebanon, the economic repercussions of disastrous US interference in the Middle East and so on. Poor Sunnis, especially in and around Tripoli, often resort to violent clashes with security services – a pattern that rarely plays out with other sectarian groupings.

Life in Lebanon has been such that since the 1990s, around half a million Lebanese have moved abroad to seek financial opportunities, sending large sums of money back to their parents and relatives. Remittances, which almost reached $6 billion per year in the 2000s, have dwindled a little, but they are still estimated at several million per day. Swathes of people are now leaving the country, provided they have a foreign passport or valid visa. Among them are some recent returnees, including second or third generation descendants of Lebanese immigrants who came back to Lebanon in the last few years to escape hardships in their country of residence. Many Venezuelans of Lebanese origin returned to their homeland seeking relief from the ruthless American embargo – but their wager did not pay off. Added to that, the UN-funded program for Syrian refugees in Lebanon brings in badly needed hard currency; the World Bank has approved a loan of $246 million, boosting the Lebanese government’s ability to continue funding public sector salaries and some education services; and countless NGOs continue to distribute aid. Knowing how to exploit these philanthropic schemes is an important aspect of Shatara and Harba’a, by which many stave off destitution.

Lebanon’s unfolding crisis will not be remedied by temporary fixes, which only treat its symptoms rather than its causes. The Lebanese (a few exceptions notwithstanding) are used to dancing on the razor’s edge, and are willing to hurt their feet if it means they can preserve their cherished sectarian system. But one thing is certain: these temporary solutions will not hold if foreign powers decide (as they have done many times before) to drag the country into a new regional conflict – such as war with Iran. Should that happen, a reckoning with the culture of ‘graft’ may be in order. Yet in the absence of outside intervention (which may or may not make things better), the current situation will probably persist for many years to come – or, as the Lebanese would say, until God relieves it.

Suleiman Mourad’s The Mosaic of Islam is out now from Verso.


Vaccine Debacle

Whatever else you may think about Angela Merkel, one thing you must allow her: she knows a hot potato when she sees one, and she can pass it on to someone else in no time. In the summer of 2020, Germany having just taken over the presidency of the EU27, it appeared that by the end of the year there might be a vaccine or two, to end the lockdowns once and for all. To Merkel this must have smelled like an approaching pack of rats: delays in research, delays in production, extortionist prices, conflicts over national shares and distribution – and above all the nightmare of nightmares: Germany, rich from monetary union, getting the vaccine first and vaccinating its citizens faster than the others, thereby undermining the ‘ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’. What to do? Move it to Brussels, and fast.

Waiting there for useful employment was Ursula von der Leyen, Merkel’s ex-Minister of Defense, installed at the head of the European Commission by a French President unwilling to surrender the post to one Manfred Weber, Spitzenkandidat of Merkel’s European party family, the EPP, and member of the CSU, the CDU’s Bavarian sister party. (European Union politics is becoming an outgrowth of German domestic politics.) Dropping Weber was not very costly for Merkel as von der Leyen was also German, from the CDU rather than the sometimes-quarrelsome CSU, and a woman. For Macron she was an ideal pick. As French Commissioner he had nominated another former Defense Minister, Sylvie Goulard, an inveterate insider of French centre-right politics. Apparently, the hope was that she and von der Leyen, said to be friends, would together advance his favorite project, a European army as a captive customer of an integrated European defense industry. But this misfired when the European Parliament, led by none other than said Manfred Weber, refused to confirm Goulard, nominally because of the same corruption charges that had cost her her ministry in 2017 (misuse of funding for European Parliament assistants, plus €10,000 monthly payments for ‘advisory’ work with the US-based Berggruen think-tank). Since corruption is not really a problem in Brussels – viz. the Ex-Commission President Barroso who, skipping the obligatory cooling-off period, became chairman of Goldman Sachs International (succeeding the likes of the two Super Marios, Monti and Draghi) – we can safely assume that the idea behind the putsch was to pay Macron back.

On to the vaccines. As Germany’s Minister of Defense, von der Leyen had messed up every major procurement project she laid her hands on, from assault rifles to transport helicopters. This may only partly be her fault; the German defense bureaucracy has long been known to excel in sabotaging its ministers, which is why being German Defense Minister usually ends your political career. It is an interesting question why von der Leyen took the job when instructed by Merkel to do so; perhaps she believed that she could achieve what others could not (she radiates this kind of elitist self-confidence, which is why the Bundestag deputies of her party are said to have loathed her).

What made matters worse, however, was that she hired Katrin Suder, the head of McKinsey’s Berlin office, as Secretary of State for armaments. Four years later Suder resigned over allegations of having illegally awarded multi-million consulting contracts, as expensive as they were useless, to friends from the consulting industry. At the time of von der Leyen’s move to Brussels in December 2019, a parliamentary investigation had just begun on what had come to be called the Berateraffäre (consulting scandal). Safe in Brussels, von der Leyen has been effectively out of its reach.

When Merkel decided to hand the vaccine business to her ex-Defense Minister, she was of course aware of her German record. What she should perhaps also have known is that unlike the British, French and German ministerial bureaucracies, the staff of the EU Commission, tiny in comparison, was never involved in a procurement project as big as this. To deal with three, four, five pharma giants, represented by a posse of highly trained and even more highly paid corporate sales sharks, is not, as the Chairman had it, like ‘a dinner party, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery’. During negotiations, the EU delegation had to check back with 27 nervous national governments facing 27 scared national electorates. Price was a major concern for the Commission, in contrast to the UK and US governments who were paying with their own money rather than that of others. More problems arose over having to buy without guarantees of production and pending medical approval, as well as worries over liability in the event of emergency certification. Even more important perhaps, the EU delegation had no authority to promise subsidies for new production facilities. In the end it turned out that contracts were poorly written, in particular regarding production volume, delivery dates and export and import shares. To top it all off, EU certification authorities went on holiday over Christmas, further delaying the start of vaccination.

One never knows for sure who does what and why in and around Brussels, the most impenetrable political sociotope since the fall of the Soviet Union. If there ever was a need to prove that nation-states are better equipped than international organizations when things get serious, insiders must have known that the vaccine negotiations were about to produce such evidence in abundance. In fact, in June 2020 when Germany took over the EU presidency a consortium of four member states – Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands – acting on behalf of the other 23, had already begun talks with the pharma companies. These had to be abandoned when Merkel told her Health Minister to turn the matter over to von der Leyen – as it turned out, a recipe for disaster although politically the safer thing to do. If there was blame to be taken, let Ursula take it: after all, that’s what she’s there for.

Indications are that there was yet another reason for the EU’s ‘vaccination debacle’, as it was meanwhile called. This had to do with the French pharma giant, Sanofi, result of a merger of a French firm with Farbwerke Höchst, a postwar descendant of IG Farben, and a favorite object of French industrial policy. Sanofi, working with the Institut Pasteur, had recently gained notoriety for a series of failed development projects. Apparently, the French government pressured the EU to delay purchases until Sanofi had developed a vaccine of its own. When the signing of contracts could no longer be postponed, the EU ordered 300 million doses from Sanofi (partnered with GlaxoSmithKline) and the government of France another 45 million. In late January, however, Sanofi had to throw in the towel, announcing that their vaccine would not be available until the end of 2021, if then. To close the gap in the vaccine supply, the German government had to arrange for Sanofi to produce the ‘German’ Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine under license, at the former Farbwerke plant in Frankfurt-Höchst, beginning in the spring at the earliest.

To complete the picture, we need to return to German domestic politics. In January 2021, the Minister-President of the Land of North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet, was narrowly elected party leader at a CDU party convention, making him one of two possible CDU/CSU candidates for the chancellorship in the national election in September. Without the support of the Merkel machine he would have lost to a more right-wing competitor, Friedrich Merz. Since being elected, Laschet abandoned his once more liberal positions on the lockdown, perhaps also because his state, the most populous of the 16, has an even lower vaccination rate than Germany as a whole. Also, a few weeks after the party convention it became known that Laschet had hired the Head of Public Affairs of Sanofi Germany – any German manager with a minimum level of self-respect has an English job title – to serve on his ‘crisis coordination committee’, a highly secretive body overseeing the state’s ministerial departments during the vaccination campaign, for six months beginning in January, with permission to return to his Sanofi job without a period of gardening leave. All that was required of him was his signature on a statement to the effect that he would not divulge any confidential information he had learned while sitting on the committee. Laschet, who hails from Aachen, or Aix-la-Chapelle, and claims to be a descendant of Charlemagne, is known as a staunch European.

The state of play by mid-February 2021: Germany had vaccinated 4.95 out of 100 inhabitants, its huge new vaccination centers deserted. Mission accomplished: Italy vaccinated 4.94, Spain 5.18; except that France (Sanofi!) vaccinated only 4.25. Of course, the UK vaccinated 22.98 and the U.S. 15.9, but this is due to amoral ‘vaccine nationalism’ and therefore irrelevant. ‘Europe’ expresses gratitude to Merkel; so does (most of) the German press (and don’t mention Brexit!). Monetary union is rescued again; Germany, while last, or almost last, on vaccinations, can remain first on exports. Up to now, no-one in Germany has dared to calculate the number of additional deaths caused by the vaccination debacle. The problem, if one is seen at all, is blamed on Brussels, but only softly due to the sacred nature of the EU in German public discourse. This may change. In the meantime, Merkel could let it be known that ‘basically nothing has gone wrong’ with her government’s handling of Covid. A few days later, she extended the lockdown until mid-March, for the time being. Whether other EU countries will stay equally sanguine remains to be seen; there is growing concern in German political circles that they might not.

And Brussels? Von der Leyen, Merkel’s convenient lightning rod, briefly panicked and considered closing the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, to keep her precious vaccine from the commercially more adept British. Journalists are now trying to find out who wrote the proposal to trigger Article 16 into her briefing papers; suspicions are that it was the Commission President herself, eager to show her mettle. After the British Prime Minister and the Irish Taoiseach had talked her out of her not-so-brilliant idea, she began enthusiastically celebrating ‘European solidarity’. While publicly continuing to declare the arrival of the virus ‘the hour of Europe’, in meetings with the EU-Parliament she apologizes for unavoidable mistakes back in early 2020, caused by an inevitable lack of knowledge about the unknowable. Meanwhile, the pandemic raging, her bureaucracy is returning to business as usual, apparently preparing a directive to force producers of alcoholic beverages, such as champagne, to adorn their bottles with warning labels and shock images, like cigarette packages. Expect the unexpected: a moment when we thank God for Emmanuel Macron reading the riot act to ‘Europa’.

Read on: Wolfgang Streeck explores the controversy over the EU Corona relief fund.


Nobel Prize for War

One only needs to think about it for a moment to realize that the existence of a Nobel Peace Prize, in the absence of a Nobel War Prize, is a lasting anomaly – a state of affairs that is not only irrational and illogical but, frankly, unfair.

It is common knowledge that, more often than not, the jurors who award the Nobel Peace Prize make gross casting errors and shoot each other in the foot with bullets as big as shells. One would waste breath trying to enumerate their blunders or draw up an exhaustive list of what, beyond bad taste, often borders on misconduct. A recent example was brought back to public attention by the Burmese military’s arrest of the 1991 Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi. It turns out that the courageous democrat had a sinister double – the iron-fisted woman who stubbornly refused to keep her distance from the genocidal campaign against the Rohingyas.

But this is just the tree which hides the forest: one is generally embarrassed by the gallery of prize-winners overwhelmingly populated by white men, heads of State and other notables – a fine cohort of United States presidents distinguished by the committee while their country was busy plundering and conquering; the indestructible Henry Kissinger, mastermind of the Pinochet coup; Sir Austen Chamberlain, who won a medal – it is true – for signing the Locarno agreements and not the Munich agreements; the sinister duettists Sadat and Begin, who sealed the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt on the backs of the Palestinians; Rabin and Peres, who won an award for having tricked Arafat into rolling in flour in Oslo. Not to forget George Marshall, inventor of the eponymous Plan, without which the Cold War would not have achieved its lustre. In 2019, the jurors, still just as wise, crowned the Ethiopian statesman Abiy Ahmed, shortly before armed hostilities resumed between his country and its neighbours. Yet in this landscape of disaster and abjection there is occasionally a fine gesture: in 1973, the Vietnamese leader Lê Đức Thọ refused the Prize which had been awarded to him jointly with Kissinger, reminding the ladies and gentlemen of distant Scandinavia of a few rules of decency.

Today we see the name of Jared Kushner, the one-man-orchestra who has helped to normalize relations between Israel and various Middle Eastern petro-monarchies, circulating among the Nobelists of the Gulf, eager to stir up a war that could overthrow the Iranian regime. That his brilliant success is a complement to the planned annexation of the so-called useful part of the West Bank by Israel – a coup endorsed by Trump, set to music by Kushner and perpetuated by Biden – is a detail that should not stop the wise men who award the coveted accolade…

Consequently, the need to create a Nobel War Prize to match the Nobel Peace Prize is quite pressing: if the jurors who award the latter have messed up, it is often because they were unable to discern what the sheepskin of the declared man-of-peace was covering. As communication does not work well between Nobel Peace Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature, they have not taken the time to meditate on Elias Canetti’s relevant maxim: ‘There is peace in each of his pores; but his mouth swarms with war.’

The immense advantage that the creation of a War Nobel would have, in addition to restoring the somewhat faded image of the institution, is obvious: as we have seen, the hallowed creators of peace usually have at least one war or genocide in their cupboard. By contrast, the recipients of the War Prize would ensure that the jurors are never contradicted by the facts: you pass it to Mrs Thatcher the day after the operation in the Falklands, to Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini in the midst of the Gulf conflict, then, successively to the two Bushes after their Iraqi crusades – right on target, no danger of being wrong!

Another advantage of this initiative would be to diminish the confusion surrounding other prize-giving decisions. Take the Prize for Literature, awarded to Peter Handke in 2019. Wouldn’t the War Prize have been more logical to honour his unwavering commitment to the post-Yugoslav purifiers, Milošević, Mladić and Karadžić? And good old Theodore Roosevelt, father of American interventionism in Latin America and the Caribbean, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 – wouldn’t a War Prize have been infinitely better suited to his distinctive merits?

The ball is in the court of the discerning Swedes. Yet there are other contentious points which remain to be resolved. For instance, could it be envisaged that, just as the Peace Prize can be awarded jointly to several people, the same person might, in view of his exceptional achievements, be simultaneously awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace and War? Such outstanding queries deserve serious reflection. But if their track record is anything to go by, there is no doubt that those who preside over the noble Nordic institution will steer us in the right direction.

Read on Jennifer Quist on the language of the Swedish Academy.


The Biopolitics of Nursing Homes

Historically, the châteaux of the Loire Valley were assessed by their windows. ‘A fifty-windowed castle’, an onlooker might surmise to suggest its worth. Russian boyars quantified their properties in souls – whether dead or alive, according to Gogol’s Dead Souls. Great nursing home corporations, on the other hand, are measured in beds. Take the four biggest nursing home operators in the UK: HC-One Ltd (22,000 beds, and curiously the same number of employees), Four Seasons Health Care (20,000), Barchester Healthcare and British United Provident Association (12,000 each). In the financialized world of elderly care, each bed corresponds to a patient, causing confusion over what exactly is bought, sold or offered as a guarantee for loans. Normally envisaged as a vortex of derivatives, futures, swaps and options, it’s somewhat strange to imagine international finance as an emporium of impaired senior citizens. But that is how it is. Data on beds alters continuously, and, as you read, the statistics might already have changed, modified by trades or mortgages for plots of patients. The case of Four Seasons, which was recently acquired by the American hedge fund H/2 Capital Partners from the City financier Guy Hands, is just one example. The fund was ultimately forced to sell part of its assets (patients) to settle debts it had incurred in the firm’s acquisition.  

This whirlwind of mergers and sales is even more dizzying in the US, where in 2007 Genesis Healthcare – then the largest manager of nursing homes in the country – was bought for $2 billion by the Atlanta-based hedge fund Formation Capital, only to be put back on the market seven years later. Also in 2007, the second biggest provider, HCR Manor, was bought for $4.2 billion by the private equity firm Carlyle Group. Its real estate portfolio was of particular interest to investors, who promptly resold the company for $6.1 billion to a real-estate investment trust in 2010. In 2018, HCM Manor filed for bankruptcy.

Naturally, in Europe we enjoy the benefits of a common market for elderly patients, and the free movement of beds. Korian, a large multinational, owns 25,000 beds in France and 5,000 in Italy, with homes in Germany, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands – a total of 71,500 beds, which turn over a yearly €3 billion. In Italy the De Benedetti family, owners of the group GEDI (which publishes such ‘progressive’ papers as Repubblica, Espresso, and countless local outlets), control the KOS group, operating 92 facilities in Italy and 48 homes in Germany, totalling 12,800 beds.

Whilst the centrality of nursing homes to the speculative manoeuvrings of big finance might not test the limits of our imagination, it’s still curious to note the extent to which senile incontinence features in the dealings of global capitalism (in the US the industry is worth a total of $129.8 billion; 15,600 facilities and 1.7 million beds for some 1.4 million patients) – not to mention its role as a profitable venture for members of Italy’s enlightened bourgeoisie.

But the role the exploitation of senescence plays in our contemporary world goes beyond the dealings of international finance capital. Nursing homes are an essential part of the structure of modern production. Without them, our entire mode of social organization would be impracticable. If dedicated facilities for the elderly did not exist, families would require far more spacious housing than the present norm, as reduced living space is the sine qua non of metropolitanism. Relatedly, without a place where one can ‘park’ or ‘store’ the elderly in the final phase of their earthly sojourn, the possibility for geographic (read professional) mobility would be greatly impaired. Younger generations would struggle to move to distant cities, or switch jobs with ease. The much-acclaimed ‘flexibility’ of modern labour tacitly requires dismantling the extended family and atomizing life itself.

Nursing homes (known as Pflegeheimen in Germany, maisons de retraite in France, case di riposo in Italy) are pivotal nodes that enable the functioning of all other spheres of life. They are, moreover, essential for the management of the growing number of human beings amongst us that have not quite died, yet have ceased to live (a peculiarity of modernity is that death has been stretched out of proportion, the agony now lasting not days, but months or often years). To paraphrase what Upton Sinclair wrote about Chicago stockyards, in nursing homes one can hear the death rattle of the universe.

The nursing home is a vital institution for the modern regime of biopolitics. It is biopolitics incarnated in a diaper. Hence why the silence surrounding them since the start of the pandemic has been so baffling. At first, fleeting sympathies and unbearable crocodile tears were offered for the Covid-19 massacre in nursing homes. The slaughter did not stop during the second wave; on the contrary, it became even more lethal. But nobody talks about this anymore – at most it is mentioned in passing. Nursing home deaths may have been mourned, and the institutions themselves indignantly denounced as a contemporary Lager Sylt, but they have never been addressed as a problem to be solved. A very difficult problem, since, as we have seen, if we take this small piece out of the mosaic, the whole social puzzle falls apart.

Nursing homes are direct descendants of almshouses, whose origins hark back to the High Middle Ages. These hospices were a nightmare reserved for the most impoverished, much like the abominable workhouses built for the ‘impotent poor’, cited in Elizabeth I’s Old Poor Law. Winding up in a hospice was the most inhuman and unhappy of fates. Their establishment was considered an act of charitable benevolence; in 1899, for instance, Giuseppe Verdi felt obliged to fund in Milan a casa di riposo per musicisti (‘resting home for musicians’) catering to his less fortunate colleagues. This was the era of the so-called mouroir (to use an almost untranslatable French neologism from the 1800s, similar to boudoir for housing, or fumoir for theatre): the ‘deathery’. Forget the bourgeoisie; it would not ever have occurred to a member of the working class to voluntarily send a parent to one of these establishments. Today, however, the average cost of residing in an American nursing home is truly stunning: $245 per day (amounting to nearly $90,000 per year), with figures reaching peaks of $963 per day in Alaska. Hospices seem to have undergone the same process Robert Castel observed with wage labour in From Manual Workers to Wage Laborers:

One was waged when one was nothing and had nothing to trade except the strength of one’s own arms. A person fell into wage-labour when his status was degraded: the ruined artisan, the smallholder whose land no longer provided enough food. Even in 1922, France’s Parti Radical proposed ‘the abolition of wage-labour, a residue of slavery’. Yet after that, wage-labour – defined as full-time work for an indeterminate period – seemed destined to become the very condition of modernity…

The wage relation was once considered a hellscape; now true damnation consists in being banished from it. Hospices were once a last resort, whilst now they represent an ineluctable destiny – even for the wealthy.

How did this phenomenon, almost a century after the mouroirs, become the norm for both the lower and upper-middle classes? Two things occurred, essentially. We’ve already observed the first; a changing labour market combined with rising life expectancy creates a situation where the elderly need to be ‘stored’ (to guarantee them the space and assistance that has become impossible to provide them with at home). Even wealthy families – which previously would have spent money to care for their elderly at home – now invest similar sums to ‘house’ them in equipped facilities.

The second decisive factor has been the expansion of the welfare state. Tutelary laws towards the elderly helped finance and create a market for a growing number of homes and residences. This was perceptible in the speculative boom the US witnessed at the beginning of the 1970s, after the creation of the first healthcare assistance programs for over-65s (Medicare) and for those in most need (Medicaid) in 1965. Between 1960 and 1975, the number of facilities in the US grew by 140%, number of beds by 302% and income by 2,000%.

It is in nursing homes, then, that we witness an overlapping of the bureaucratic logic of government and of the business logic of profit. In France and Germany, different degrees of assistance for the elderly have been established based on the patient’s level of independence. In France, patients are classified into GIRs (groups iso-ressource): from GIR 1 (complete mental and physical dependence) to GIR 6 (no significant dependence). In Germany, there are 5 different PGs (Pflegegrad): PG1 (mildly compromised independence) to PG5 (severely compromised independence). These levels help determine the proportion of patients to staff in any given facility. In Bavaria, PG1 patients require an average of 6.7 carers, whilst those in PG5 are usually satisfied with just 1.78.

As happens in other industries, almost the entirety of public funds allocated to elderly care has for some time been (and continues to be) channelled to private interests: already in 1980, 80% of patients globally were cared for in commercial facilities. Today, private firms own 381,524 of the 456,545 beds in the UK. In the US, 68% of nursing homes are for-profit, 22% are run by private non-profits (like the Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society, which controls 9,340 beds and Ascension Living, with 4,562) and 6% are publicly owned. In Germany, 70% of beds belong to private companies. The only outlier in this trend is France; 44% of its homes are controlled by the state, non-profits own around 31%, and private companies hold the rest.

But dependence on state funds also renders nursing homes vulnerable. Recurrent cuts to public spending explain why in the 2000s operators incurred increasing debts, to the point of being swallowed up by hedge funds. During this period, the private sector pushed for deep public spending cuts, only to find that this frugality had rebounded – damaging their own profits.

Nursing homes thus present a conceptual difficulty. They represent one of the most contradictory and intractable aspects of our current mode of cohabitation, which many are reluctant to acknowledge. In this respect we resemble Benjamin’s Angelus Novus: our backs are obstinately turned away from nursing homes, all the while moving irresistibly in their direction, unaware of the destiny they represent for us all.

To conclude with an analogy which highlights the ineluctable weave of the modern, a site modelled on TripAdvisor has now been created for British nursing homes, which ranks each establishment according to its services and value for money. When flicking through the criteria by which they’re assessed, one notices a significant crossover with the extraordinary Prisons Handbook published by Pluto Press, which guides inmates and their relatives on the various facilities provided by the institutions: whether conjugal visits are allowed, whether there’s a children’s play area, gym or library, wifi in the cells, proper sanitary conditions and so on. Both exemplify the range of options within these carceral settings, although the former is nowhere near as comprehensive – unfortunately for us, since we’re more likely to have use for it.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti

Read on: Marco D’Eramo on biopolitics and coronavirus.